Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mercedes _ Benz CLK

How many actors are there in the world? I’m counting everyone, from the “boy” in an amateur dramatic society’s performance of The Winslow Boy, to the Latvian teenager who appears only on webcams, covered in baby oil.

I’m counting people in Bollywood, people in French art house films, people at provincial Brazilian drama colleges. And if you do that, the number must be into the millions.

Some of them must be very good. It stands to reason. But they’ll never make it. The hand of fate will continue to deal them low diamonds and mid-range clubs until eventually they wind up teaching Stanislavski to self-harming inmates at Pentonville. Even those who make it to the top struggle to become Tom Cruise. The big-name star. The guarantee of bums on seats.

Take Christopher Walken as a prime example. He’s big, all right. He could get a table at the Ivy any time he wanted. And he’s also fabulously watchable. That gold watch scene in Pulp Fiction was, I think, the finest performance from any big screen actor since . . . well, ever.

But he still couldn’t fill a theatre. I mean, since Pulp Fiction he’s appeared in Kangaroo Jack, Engine Trouble, The Country Bears, Poolhall Junkies, The Affair of the Necklace, Joe Dirt, Jungle Juice, The Opportunists, Kiss Toledo Goodbye, Mousehunt and countless other movies that I can pretty much guarantee you haven’t seen. Since Top Gun, however, there isn’t a single Tom Cruise film I’ve missed. In fact there isn’t a single Tom Cruise film I don’t own on DVD. Of course Tom’s a fine actor. His performance alongside Dustin Hoffman’s twitchery in Rain Man was especially memorable. But is he better than Walken?

So it goes with all things, especially cars. Last week, after a hard day’s filming, I drove home in a new 3-series BMW. The Tom Cruise of motoring. The machine you would automatically choose if you wanted a well-made, reasonably sporty four-door saloon. And it was fine. But the next day an Alfa Romeo 159 arrived at my house. Now this is a car you would automatically not choose if you wanted a well-made, reasonably sporty four-door saloon. This is Christopher Walken.

Actually, that’s one of my less risible metaphors. Because in its long history of making cars, Alfa only rarely produces a Deer Hunter or a gold watch scene in Pulp Fiction. The vast majority of its offerings are complicated, silly and badly made. And as a result most go straight to the discount DVD bin at Blockbuster.

The thing is, though, with the exception of the simply appalling Arna, I’ve loved all Alfas. In fact I’ve argued time and again that nobody can be a petrolhead until they’ve owned one. It’s a rite of passage. Think of it as the great sex that leaves you with an embarrassing itch.

Take the old GTV6 as a prime example. I owned one once and it was a nightmare. The worst car I’ve owned. Deeply uncomfortable, spectacularly impractical and blessed with steering so heavy that navigating into a London parking space was like navigating a donkey into a budgie cage.

Then there was the complete lack of quality. Nothing worked. And when you got one thing fixed something else would break on the way home. Once it tried to murder me. The linkage from the gearlever to the rear-mounted gearbox fell off and jammed the prop shaft, causing a sound not heard on earth since Krakatoa blew up, and the rear wheels to lock.

But behind the oyster-like impregnability of its ergonomics and hidden in the sea of snot were two perfect pearls. The styling. And the howl from its V6 engine. In a tunnel, at 4000rpm, it was more sonorous than any music. It was like having your soul licked by angels.

In essence, then, Alfa has always understood what makes driving a thrill. But it has never been able to make a car. Well, not a car that a rational, normal human being might want to buy.

Think of them as underground German art films. Great for serious-minded critics but not quite in the same everyman league as BMWillis on an asteroid.

At first I thought the 159 would be more of the same. The boot release button is in the roof, just where you wouldn’t expect it to be, the electric windows have a mind of their own, and like the Fiat Grande Punto I reviewed last week, it couldn’t find or hold Radio 2. It could pick up pigs squeaking on Io, and Radio Leicester. But not Johnnie Walker.

These, however, are trivial faults. No more annoying in the big scheme of things than the iDrive in a BMW or the harsh ride you get on an Audi. Unlike Alfas of old you have to look long and hard in a 159 to find something deeply disturbing. But I found it, all right.

The greatest sensation of speed afforded to ordinary man is not on a go-kart or a rollercoaster. It comes when you’ve got the cruise control set at 70mph, the traffic in front is stopping and momentarily you can’t find the button to turn it off. In that hiccup of time it doesn’t feel like you’re doing 70mph. It feels like you’re doing three times the speed of light.

That’s why, in most cars, the cruise control “off” button is clearly visible and easy to use in a hurry. Not in the Alfa it isn’t. It looks like one of the pieces from a game of Risk and it’s mounted on a stalk just below and slightly behind the indicator.

So when the traffic ground to a halt on the M40 I bet the chap behind me was keen to know why I didn’t slow at all and then, for no obvious reason, suddenly indicated left. This, then, is proper swivel-eyed Alfa lunacy but it is the only thing in the car that’s truly wrong and there’s a simple way round the problem. Ignore it. Pretend it isn’t there.

But do not pretend the 159 isn’t there next time you want a mid-range four-door saloon because that would be a mistake. A bad one. First of all, it is exactly one million times better looking than a BMW 3-series. And with those triple headlamps, and perfect proportions, at least half a million times better looking than any rivals from Audi, Mercedes or Jaguar.

Inside, it’s even better. The driving position is spot on, the dials look like they’ve come from a Swiss watch and the quality of the leather, especially if you have it in red, gives the impression that it costs Rolls-Royce money.

But it doesn’t. A 159 Lusso, which is the luxury version, is £22,395. That’s about what BMW charges for a 320i SE, but Alfa gives you far more equipment as standard and lots more power as well. The 2.2 litre engine is a peach that just begs to be taken outside and given a damn good thrashing. Porsche engineered an exhaust rasp into the Boxster at 5000rpm to reward the sporty driver. Alfa hasn’t bothered. It just gives you a simple four-cylinder engine that, all on its own, sounds better and better until you’re up at 6500 when it sounds like a metallic werewolf.

You can pootle around slowly but somehow you tend to drive the 159 very hard and very fast. But the engine, torquey, powerful and smooth though it may be, is not the best part of this car. That accolade goes to the steering. It’s fast, sharp, more informative than the internet and more tactile than a freshly carved stone otter.

The handling is also sweet and yet the ride isn’t even slightly uncomfortable. Which means that the 159 drives and feels like no other car in its class. If you have even the faintest trace of petrol in your veins, if you are even on nodding terms with the concept of simple, good engineering, you should drive this car. Because it doesn’t matter what you have now, you’ll be smitten. I was.

This is one of those cars that’s demonstrably and appreciably better than any other mid-range four-door family saloon. And unlike any Alfa of the past, you don’t have to machete your way through a million inconveniences to find the point. This car does not hide its gold watch up its behind. It is an absolute gem.

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